The Illinois Fighting Illini cagers return to the hardwood tonight to take on UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center in their first road test of the season. It’s a late tip off by Midwest standards, but I will be here live at 9:45 CST to talk with any Illini basketball fan that feels like dropping in and talking a little late night hoops.
Illinois comes in to this contest carrying a 5-0 overall record, fresh off a 24 point victory over a game Chicago State squad that saw Jon Ekey shoot 5-8 from 3 point range en route to a 19 point, 6 rebound performance. Speaking of Ekey, this will be his second crack at taking down the Runnin’ Rebels. Way back on 12/1/10, Ekey played 14 minutes in a loss, but did manage to register 3 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots in his limited amount of floor time.
UNLV will be playing its 5th game of the season, and all have been at home, but the Runnin’ Rebels haven’t fared as well as the Illini this season while posting a 2-2 overall record. Their first loss of the season was a 21 point setback at the hands of UC-Santa Barbara, and their second loss came in their most recent contest, an 86-80 defeat to Arizona State.
The Illini post players will face their stiffest test to date in this game. UNLV boasts the nation’s current leading rebounder in junior forward Roscoe Smith (16.3 rpg), as well as the nation’s current second highest player in blocked shots per game in junior forward Khem Birch (5.5 bspg).
Smith’s last 2 games have been a bit of a coming out party to say the least. Against Nebraska-Omaha, Smith scored 17 points, pulled in 22 rebounds, and blocked 3 shots. In the loss to Arizona State, Smith posted another outstanding line with 18 points, 21 rebounds, and 1 blocked shot.
Despite everything Smith has done, Birch has been a beast in his own right this season. He has three double digit rebounding efforts in four games as he pulled down 17 in the opener, followed by 10 and 14 the past two games consecutively. While these are outstanding numbers, they are overshadowed by his shot blocking abilities. He has blocked 8 shots in each of his past 2 games, and has a total of 22 for the year.
Key to the game:
For Illinois to find success tonight in their first road game they are going to have to do their best to neutralize these two interior workhorses without getting in foul trouble. Before it’s all said and done, Illinois’ interior depth could play a major role in tonight’s game.
DATE: Tuesday, November 26, 2013
TIME: 7:45 p.m. PST
SITE: Tarkanian Court, Thomas & Mack Center (18,500), Las Vegas
TV: CBS Sports Network (Andrew Catalon, Steve Lappas, Doug Gottlieb) (DirecTV 221, DISHNetwork 152)
Remember to check back in tonight during the game and talk it over with me in the comments section below.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.